Abu Qatada: Theresa May says the Jordanian government can be trusted not to torture its prisoners but these activists disagree

If the Home Secretary wins her battle to deport Abu Qatada, it will be based on the assumption that he will not be abused. In Amman, Enjoli Liston hears from those who have strong reasons to doubt it

Abdullah Mahhaden was arrested around four hours after he managed to escape from a police crackdown on an anti-government protest in Amman on 31 March 2012.

The demonstration had been calling for the release of seven activists. The 25 year-old accountant-turned-activist had wanted to make his voice heard. He ended up at the city’s main police station, where he says he was beaten by as many as 20 police officers. 

“I was the last one to get caught that night,” Mahhaden told The Independent. “The police started asking me, ‘Why were you demonstrating? How did you know about the demonstration? Who organised it?’. I said, ‘I forget’, so they beat me.

“They slammed my face at the wall, they slammed me into a photocopy machine, they were swearing at me all the time. They forced me to take my clothes off and beat me while I was naked. That was because I resisted giving them the PIN code to my mobile phone.”

The issue of obtaining evidence through torture is at the heart of the British government’s long-running efforts to deport Abu Qatada to Jordan, where he faces terrorism charges dating back to 1999.

Attempts to deport the radical Islamist cleric, who has been called al-Qa’ida’s key UK figure, have been blocked by the UK and the European Convention on Human Rights on the grounds that “there remains real risk that evidence obtained by torture will be used against him”.

The Home Secretary, Theresa May, said this week the Government had signed a mutual assistance treaty with Jordan, complete with new assurances on fair trials, to ensure Abu Qatada can be deported even if the Government’s latest appeal to the Supreme Court is blocked.

The case has been watched closely in Jordan. Many feel it has cast a shadow across their country, not because of the implications for its justice system, but because the cleric links Jordan with extremism. “The [legal] issue is complex, but in terms of Islam it is very easy,” says Mohammad al-Safadi, who works in a hotel in Amman. “He projects the wrong image of Islam. He is the complete opposite of people in Jordan. This is a moderate and modern place.”

Mr Safadi likens Abu Qatada to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the late Jordanian leader of al-Qa’ida in Iraq, who claimed responsibility for suicide bombings in Amman in 2005 which left 60 people dead. He was killed in a US drone strike in 2006.

Hossam al-Kaid, from Aleppo, who studied law in Syria, also works in Amman and agrees: “In Jordan, there is a fear of people like Abu Qatada.”

He says he would rather the radical cleric stay in the UK, but if he were to be sent back to Jordan, he believes he would receive a fair trial.

“This is a small country, but the law is very strong,” Mr Kaid says. “King Abdullah II has a European mindset and democratic values. He gives rights for everyone.” When asked whether he believes the treatment Abdullah Mahhaden received was fair, Mr Kaid says “personal mistakes” can happen. However, Mahhaden argues his case – and those of dozens of other detainees –  show the international community cannot be sure Jordan will deliver on its promises regarding Abu Qatada.

After being beaten, Mahhaden spent 15 days in detention before he was released after King Abdullah II issued a royal pardon. He says he was later detained again in September, this time for 44 days.

Despite being a civilian, he faces trial in a state security court on charges of undermining the political regime for his role in the protest in March last year. He says he has also been charged with attending an “unpermitted demonstration”, and with another offence “which is difficult to translate: having a big mouth. It is literally translated as ‘having a long tongue’”.

At a hearing this week, Mahhaden’s lawyers submitted a memo to the court saying he refuses to speak to take part in the trial because he is a civilian. He is waiting for an answer. 

Mahhaden attempted to press charges against the police for his mistreatment while in detention, but his case – heard in a police court – was dismissed on lack of evidence.

At the time, Jordan’s Public Security Department described the accusations “baseless”, and Mohammed Khatib, a spokesman for the police, said: “The Jordanian police do not torture, do not beat and any claim is a direct attempt to harm the image of Jordan.”

Human rights advocates continue to claim otherwise.  “Jordanian law already proscribes torture and the use of confessions obtained under duress, yet judges routinely accept these confessions,” says Adam Coogle, Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch. The organisation has in the past both praised the Jordanian government for its openness towards investigating human rights abuses in prisons, and criticised its insistence on paying little attention to the results of the investigations.

Mr Coogle has little faith in the mutual assistance treaty: “How can the UK expect Jordan to honour its promises when it fails to abide by its own laws?”

Muhhaden – like many Jordanians – believes Abu Qatada should remain in the UK. “If England gives back Abu Qatada, it is like a gift for the Jordanian government,” he says. “It is like the English government sending a message to the world that it has ensured that there is no torture in Jordan. And that is not the truth.”

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